Finley and Jacques: Snyder leaves behind a better Michigan

Gov. Rick Snyder took over an economic wasteland and, through innovative, growth focused leadership, made Michigan one of America's great comeback stories.

Michigan never warmed to Rick Snyder the way it should have. The Republican governor took over an economic wasteland and, through innovative, growth-focused leadership, made it one of America's great comeback stories.

He saved the state's largest city from sure ruin, lifted Michigan from the bottom of every business climate ranking and set a course for a fiscally sound future.

And yet Snyder will leave office with an approval rating lower than that of President Donald Trump, who couldn't be further away from the governor in either style or substance.

An easy answer to why Snyder isn't more celebrated is Flint. And certainly the water contamination crisis there called into question the governor's decision making, as well as his empathy. Coming as it did at the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, Snyder became an easy whipping boy for every Democratic politician, liberal activist and Hollywood know-it-all.

But even before Flint, Snyder struggled to keep his popularity numbers above water. Remember that in 2014, with Michigan's economy rebounding and Detroit's turnaround assured, Snyder won reelection by just a 4 percentage point margin against a poorly financed and unfocused opponent.

Snyder came to office via a coalition of Republicans, Independents and business-minded Democrats. In doing so, he became the first governor to move from the business world into the statehouse with no political stops in between since George Romney in 1962. 

Democrats seemed to expect him to govern as a progressive, and turned away from Snyder when he signed many of the conservative bills generated by the Republican-led Legislature.

Republicans, by contrast, turned on him for not being conservative enough. Unlike most past governors, Snyder never became the head of his party, leaving the political games to those who better enjoyed them. Republican politicians talk about Snyder in language normally reserved for Democrats.

Yet in the business world, Snyder remains a hero because he delivered exactly what he promised: relentless, positive action to improve the competitiveness of Michigan. Consider the numbers:

  • As of October, Michigan hit its lowest unemployment rate since 2000. The 3.9 percent rate is the result of a growing economy and the addition of 560,000 private sector jobs in the past eight years. 
  • In June, Snyder signed the 2019 budget, marking eight years in a row the state budget has reached a balanced spending plan months ahead of deadline. 
  • The state's rainy-day fund has grown to more than $1 billion from just $2 million in 2011.
  • Snyder has steadily tackled long-term debt, reducing it by more than $20 billion. By around 2038, he estimates the billions in unfunded liabilities in the state's teacher pension system should be gone -- assuming a continued commitment to paying down these obligations. 
  • In 2011, Snyder spearheaded the effort to get rid of the Michigan Business Tax, which was replaced with a corporate income tax that encourages job creation and investment. 

And then there's Detroit. Without Rick Snyder, there would be no Motor City comeback. 

The governor brilliantly directed the city -- kicking and screaming, by the way -- first through emergency management and then a bankruptcy crafted by him not just to settle a horrendous debt, but to give Detroiters a fighting chance to rebuild. 

Those who blame the Snyder-ordered emergency management of Flint for nearly ruining that city, must also recognize emergency management saved Detroit.

We visited Snyder in the darkest hours of the Flint crisis, when calls for his resignation were ringing through the Capitol. His name was fast becoming synonymous with heartless Republicanism, and his family was being shouted out of restaurants.

Heartless is far from what we saw in that interview. Snyder was visibly shaken by what had happened in Flint, and he wasn't hiding his emotion. He promised to take responsibility and committed to making things right for the people who had been harmed by government's failures. And he followed through. 

Flint's water tainted water lines are nearly all replaced, affected children are receiving ongoing attention and businesses are showing interest in the city.

Set aside the balance sheet of Snyder's achievements/failures. Measure him instead by the way he conducted himself in office. He was unique in his constant civility. We never heard the governor engage in a personal attack. Never heard him disparage his opponents.  Never saw him waver in his commitment to stay positive. Even during Flint, when his character was being assassinated by those who didn't even know him, he never lashed out in anger. 

We expect that Snyder will become a much more popular governor over time. And we expect Michigan will miss him even sooner.